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Kobe Police Station, Japan.
Sunday 13 May, 1934
Beyond Hyogo Port, a weary-eyed keisatsu officer sits at a table in a bare lit cell. Matsumoto, a senior in his department, transcribes with the energy of youth. Without looking up to the Frenchman, he asks another question.
“What did you do then, Mr. Chauve?”
“Went straight to my wife, of course.”
“Most of them were still in prayer. Eyes down.”
Henri stormed decisively into the boat’s lounge.
“Marie? Come,” said Henri.
“What is it?”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. Get your bags.”
“What’s going on?” asked Escoffier.
“I caught – that man…”
“Escoffier, Jiahao, Willem Jansen: they all knew there was trouble.”
“He is no Abbot. Let’s go,” said Henri.
“Oh God, not again,” said Escoffier.
“Juliet?” asked Marie.
“Martin Steinke had very good reasons for leaving,” said Escoffier.
“What?” asked Willem.
“If any of you are serious about this you’ll leave him when we get off at Kobe,” I told them.
“That’s when HE arrived.”
“Everyone, return to prayer. Mr. Chauve, come with me,” said Chaokung.
“I think not.”
“Oh you will. You see that was not a request.”
“You ought to be ashamed of yourself. We are going.”
“Jiahao, I will handle this!” said Chaokung.
“I caught this impostor and HER – she can’t even look at me.”
“Henri, don’t,” said Marie. “She’s been through enough.”
Escoffier said, “Well, that settles it!”
“Even Adeline was ruffled,” Henri told the keisatsu. “’Alright, Alright,’” I said, “but taking advantage of that young nun like he did!”
Matsumoto gestured Chaokung to sit. He opened the folder and stroked his goatee.
“Madame Escoffier told me one or two interesting things, Abbot. There was an argument…”
“No. Escoffier and the Chauve couple attempted a mutiny. I sent them to their cabins.”
“Tell me about the argument.”
“It is not important.”
“Very well. If you wish to hide the facts.”
“I have nothing to hide, Corporal.”
“I did not think you were interested in the role and function of a Bodhisattva. Nor how an Abbot ensures his novices observe their Mahayana vows in silence. That look! That look! It is the look I gave them. Well, Mr. Chauve, I told him. ‘You will spend the next two hours alone, deliberating on this bad example.’”
“No. You shall,” said Henri. “I am in charge now! You are to fast for the rest of the week.”
“Henri, you sound like a fanatic,” said Adeline.
“Why did Steinke leave then?” said Escoffier.
“Steinke was ego-obsessed,” said Margot.
“Silence is for cowards,” said Escoffier. “I’ll talk as much as I like. Be gone Trebitsch Lincoln!”
“What is this? Where is the practice of love and fellowship which I taught you?” I asked them. “Outside the sun is shining in the sky…”
“Willem, Jiahao. Wouldn’t you both like to go out on deck for a cigarette?” asked Marie.
“This is such wicked folly,” said Margot.
“I regret it has come to this. I have to ask the three of you to leave.”
“Thank you, Abbot,” said Willem.
Hertha said, “This is good. I am happy where I am.”
“Then we will take back what we brought with us. The money and the blankets!” said Henri.
I laughed. “You know these are long gone.”
“You owe us!”
“I am not a banker,” I told them. “I cannot keep track of all business in the last year.”
“Henri, don’t be silly. He barely has our travel costs,” said Adeline.
“Liar! You’re all liars!” said Marie.
Escoffier said, “He is full of” unmentionable curses.
“Give the money to me or I will punch you out cold and bloody,” Henri said.
“Sergeant Matsumoto. I did my best to cool their tempers before persuading them to go. I had excommunicated them. I cannot be held responsible for slanderous remarks made to you after the fact. They are illiterate, and lazy, and I am glad to be rid of them.”
They spent the next year in Shanghai. Chaokung lodged at Astor Hotel on Soochow Creek, and the Burlington, both near the Buddhist House. The Astor was ideal until he found his room backed onto a brothel on Taydong Road. It was run by Eugene Pick, a friend of the British envoy, Miles Lampson. From there took his people to the neighbouring province of Chekiang.
It was said the goddess Nuwa cut the legs off a giant sea turtle to prop up the sky; that Tiantai Mountain was on the creature’s back when she moved it. The whole area was filled with imposing rock obelisks and explosions of greenery between the temples. The largest of these was Guoqing, favoured by diplomats. There was also Ji Gong, named after the mad monk, and Tiantai Shan, which devoted itself to the harmonisation of teachings. Contact between them was rare however. Tiantai was often drenched by plum rains, sleet or the edges of typhoons.
Chaokung’s pilgrims were joined by Jacintha Megat, thirty-five, of Singapore-Malaysian heritage. Jacintha valued courtesy and coolness. This was not her first Buddhist colony. Chaokung hoped she might bring her own contacts to study under him. Willem’s insolence necessitated a demotion, and he’d also considered suspending Hertha. He could do neither. Their chief tasks were the release of two magazines, ‘Nirvana’ and ‘Aurora’, and a book, ‘The Human Tragedy.’ It was released to a small audience. A copy was sent to York with the inscription, ‘To B. Seebohm Rowntree, with grateful memories’. Chaokung published these under the name, ‘The League of Truth’. The League stood, ‘For TRUTH, JUSTICE, KINDNESS. Against LIES, INJUSTICE, HATRED; EVERYWHERE, AND IN EVERYTHING.’ An inverted swastika appeared over two hemispheres on his business cards, and on all the League’s publications.
From April to mid-July the monks set their minds to the extensive instruction in the Lotus Sutra. By rote, they copied out the Threefold Truth of the emptiness of self-nature, existing provisionally with worldliness, and both at once. The Three Contemplations gave life, breath, and punishment, in a gruelling learning routine. The church hall, the cells, food and clothes were scrubbed in ongoing battle with Tiantai’s high humidity. Adeline, whose eyesight was failing, worked her way through the Fourfold Teachings; and the Eight Teachings of Four Doctrines of different levels; and Four Methods, for different audiences, and she felt her wrist might literally snap off. The tips of her index finger and thumb were depressed on cracking skin, and the mid-way indent was blister red. She could not hold the pain inside her. Chaokung, working on his next book, did not need to listen to her whines.
Willem was not told what Adeline had done, but he knew strict discipline under Chaokung too well. As a train engineer in Amsterdam, and later in Mukden (before the bombing), he’d seen closely a workaholic boss’s routine, and the fall-out on the minds and bodies of labourers. Young Hertha in particular was deteriorating. She went from moments of great excitation to muffled sobbing in her cell. She was mostly bone. He’d spoken to the Abbot about her diet but the time was taken up convincing him it wasn’t a personal attack. Hertha said he worried about nothing: she’d be fine; everything was rosy; she was safe from any gluttony!
When the July sun was in the sky there were scenic views of the China Sea, Phoenix Mountain and West Lake. The Qiantang River dipped over pebbles and ran currents deep out to Hangzhou Bay. Hertha worked her way through the twenty-seven chapters of the Lotus Sutra. Understanding the immortal aspects of the Buddha; the three-as-part-of-one nature of the Great Vehicle,; these things were necessary in the age of Dharma decline. They read and wrote in silence for nearly five hours. At that point, the high pollen count caught up with Hertha and she shattered the air with a sneeze.
She didn’t go without protest. The Abbot used people, she said. He was domineering and cruel. A hypocrite, and she spat at his feet. With these words the outside bolt was slid across her cell door. She was denied supper, and cried as night fell in storm winds.
She was still crying the following evening when the rain took over the sunset. Jiahao heard the tears on his way to Adeline’s door. He struggled against the gales which kept the old woman inside. Her head was bulbous, and the clothes hung off her: she could barely stand.
“His Holiness says you have earned redemption by showing the proper conduct,” said Jiahao.
“Help me up then. Good lad. We are going to the dining hall,” said Adeline.
“It wasn’t a question. This weather is horrible. And the sound of it!”
“Yes. Watch your step. I have you.”
“My God. That’s not the wind. Is that…?”
“The Master put Tao Ta in solitary yesterday.”
“Hertha? Oh my… she hasn’t been looking well… Oh, it’s stopped.”
“I think the wind has changed direction. Here we are, Miss Hill.”
“Thank you… the poor girl. Mr. Tang, would you look in on her?”
“The Venerable One has forbidden her visitors.”
“Just look in on her. I will tell the Abbot you are securing one of the doors.”
Wet pelts in gusts threw cold at the Chinaman’s head. It rattled the bar on Hertha’s cell door. There was a high window at the side. He knew he would see nothing through it. Jiahao saw a rope. He slid through the mud and caught the handle. The winds let out a glimpse of legs. He got inside, wrapped arms tight round her, pushed up. The door slammed in the darkness. He tried to lift her onto his shoulders. The door flung wide open to moonlight and her head nodded down at him from the noose. Somebody get here, somebody help; he repeated it over and over as he wrestled. In minutes, Willem was beside him, lifting her up, but she was already cold.
Willem sent Maurice to fetch the police, while Chaokung instructed them not to go near the body. They arrived an hour later. There were only two men. They would not take the body out that night. After examining the cell, they took Chaokung’s statement while the others waited.
“They don’t even want to hear what we have to say,” snapped Willem.
“This is a great tragedy,” said Margot.
“It should not have happened,” said Adeline.
“It’s his fault. That bastard.”
“Willem!” cried Maurice.
“There’s no need for that,” said Jacintha.
“I won’t let this continue. He’s crossed the line.”
“We are all upset,” said Margot. “But what can we do?”
“The thing to do is approach this calmly, with meditation and prayer,” said Jacintha.
“Oh mind your own business,” said Adeline. “You silly girl.”
“The police are leaving,” said Maurice.
“We will go on hunger strike,” said Jiahao. “Out of memory of Hertha. In opposition to ill treatment.”
“That would be drastic,” said Maurice.
“But it would mean something,” said Adeline.
“Agreed. If we are united he will seriously reconsider how things are done,” said Willem.
“No. We must be focussed on a return to normalcy: to study; focussed; away from negativity,” said Margot.
“Willem, our vows forbid us from speaking out against the Abbot,” said Maurice.
Something was ripped from its moorings in the black skies then. Thunder. Crushed space and time. Heavier raindrops pushed their heads. Chaokung was walking up the hill toward them.
“Surely you can see his behaviour is the cause of all this?” said Willem.
Margot threw his words back at him. “I heard this all on the voyage from England. We are devoted to peace! A hunger strike, Adeline, really? At your age?
“That would be very foolish in light of that we have all endured,” said Chaokung. “We shall eat. And get a good night’s sleep: and talk more about this tragedy in the morning.”
“No. There are matters that need to be addressed now,” said Willem.
“You are wrong. We need our strength. Now, the food has already been prepared. For all those who want it, follow me.”
Willem, Adeline and Jiahao did not follow. In the morning they did not touch their plates. Chaokung reminded everyone of the sin of wasting food. By midday the hunger-strikers were denied admission to the lunch hall. From then on, they were two separate camps exchanging looks of disappointment. Chaokung encouraged prayers for Hertha’s soul and reminded them, despite the tragedy, it was her decision and no-one was to blame. In the central quad the breakaway group ignored his instructions to observe a silence. They drew plans for a shrine to her memory, and read from scripture on health. They talked about continuing the fast there at Tiantai Shan. If the Abbot punished them, or refused to compromise, they would take it to the city.
While Jacintha and Maurice prayed, Chaokung rearranged the dining area so empty spaces would be less noticeable. Margot chopped onions, leeks and garlic, their scents wafting across the room. Meals were eaten from six oryoki bowls of different sizes. Chaokung stood for a moment with the zuhatsu, the largest of them, representing the Buddha.
Once they finished dinner, stuck food was scraped, hot water added, and the remains were drank. Leaving his bowl to be dried by Maurice, Chaokung went immediately out into the quad.
“I waited for you at the table. You wanted to talk when it suited you and only then.” he said.
“What that poor girl went through was a sin,” said Adeline. “Do not think I did not hear.”
“You are running a house built on punishment. Yet you know the way of the Buddha is love. We must face what has happened,” said Willem.
“I see. Now you will listen to me. This must end at once. You will not undermine our efforts. Return to the community. No more will be spoken about it. Or go, taking your shame with you. Go and never darken our door. The choice is yours. What will it be?”